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Pirbright reveals new insights into COVID-19
The origin of the COVID-19 outbreak remains unclear because no immediately related coronaviruses have been identified in animals.

Study indicates how the virus could have adapted from bats to humans. 

Researchers at The Pirbright Institute have revealed new insights into how the virus that causes COVID-19 could have adapted from bats to humans.

Their study, published in the journal PLOS Biology, identifies key differences in severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that could be responsible for the jump from bats to humans, as well as other animals it could infect.

Dr Dalan Bailey, head of the Viral Glycoproteins Group at Pirbright, said: “Uncovering the common traits that allow viruses to jump between animals and humans helps us to identify potential reservoirs of disease and forewarn us of future threats.

“Using molecular techniques to study coronavirus spike proteins in isolation, without ever needing to work with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, has enabled us to take an in-depth look at how genetic differences in coronavirus spike proteins and animal ACE2 receptors influence which animals the virus may be able to infect.”

Comparing genomes
The origin of the COVID-19 outbreak remains unclear because no immediately related coronaviruses have been identified in animals. The bat coronavirus, RaTG13, is the closet known relative, with a 96 per cent similarity to the SARS-CoV-2 genome.

In the study, researchers compared the genomes of both viruses, identifying several regions that differed between their spike proteins - those which the virus uses to bind to the ACE2 surface receptors of cells to gain entry.

Using a method that does not involve live virus, the scientists swapped these regions to examine how well the resulting spike proteins bound to human ACE2 receptors.

They found that SARS-CoV-2 spikes containing RaTG13 regions were unable to bind to human ACE2 receptors effectively. Conversely, the RaTG13 spikes containing SARS-CoV-2 regions could bind more efficiently to human receptors, although not to the same level as the unedited SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

This finding could indicate that similar changes in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein occurred historically, which may have played a key role in allowing the virus to jump the species barrier, the researchers said.

Future threats
The scientists also noted that these genetic adaptions were similar to those made by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) when it adapted from bats to infect humans, suggesting there may be a common mechanism by which this family of viruses mutates.

With this knowledge, researchers may in future be able to identify viruses circulating in animals that could adapt to infect humans and pose a pandemic threat.

Other animals
Finally, the team investigated whether the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein could bind to the ACE2 receptors of 22 different animals. They found that bat and bird receptors made the weakest interactions with SARS-CoV-2, giving weight to the evidence that SARS-CoV-2 likely adapted its spike protein when it jumped from bats into people.

Dogs, cats and cattle had the strongest interactors with the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, suggesting that efficient entry into cells could mean that infection may establish easier in these animals.

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Born Free video highlights how humans are to blame for COVID-19

News Story 1
 Wildlife charity Born Free has released a video emphasising the importance of changing the ways in which humans treat wildlife in order to prevent pandemics from occurring in the future.

The video, narrated by founder patron Joanna Lumley OBE, says: "To deal with the very immediate threat of another global catastrophe, we have to focus on ending the destruction and conversion of natural habitats and the devastating impact of the wildlife trade.

"The vast majority of these viruses originated in wild animals before infecting us. Destroying and exploiting nature puts us in closer contact with wildlife than ever before."

Born Free has compiled an online resource with information on how to take action and improve protections for wildlife here.

To view the video, please click here.

Images (c) Jan Schmidt-Burbach. 

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RVC opens 2021 Summer Schools applications

The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) has opened applications for its 2021 Summer Schools, with students in Years 10, 11 and 12 invited to apply.

Taking place between July and August 2021, the event gives budding vets from all backgrounds first-hand insight into what it's like to study at the Campus.

Much of this year's content is likely to be delivered virtually, including online lectures and practical demonstrations, but the RVC hopes to welcome each of the participants to campus for at least one day to gain some hands-on experience.

For more information about the Schools and to apply, visit: Applications close on the 2 March 2021.